“If I had a hundred lives, I would start again the adventure of the camembert:” The delicious Québec saga of the Clément family and its cheeses

Rachel Marie-Louise Clément, born Guillot, salting Madame Clément camembert cheeses produced by Laiterie R.A. Clément (Enregistrée? Incorporée? Limitée?), McMasterville or Beloeil, Québec. Anon., “Fromages du Québec.” Photo-Journal, 28 August 1952, 33.

I salute you, my reading friend. As you will had obviously noticed, the subject of our estradinary blog / bulletin / thingee for this beginning of August is foodish in nature.

Let me kick off our story with two births taking place in Francueil, France, a village located more or less in the centre of that country:

- that of Silvain Adrien Clément, on 16 April 1874, and

- that of Rachel Marie Louise Guillot, on 8 December 1882.

These two young people having joined in matrimony in 1901, the young wife gave birth to a son, Roger Alfred Adrien Clément, on 25 February 1902. Clément senior worked for a winegrower. His wife took care of the family home.

For some reason, Rachel Clément began an apprenticeship in a cheese factory in Saint-Martin-le-Beau, France, in 1904. The owner of the cheese factory in question was so satisfied that he placed the production of his cheeses in her hands around 1908-09. Anxious to learn more about the art of producing camembert, Rachel Clément later joined the staff of a renowned cheese dairy in Normandy. The young woman then learned how to produce another type of cheese just as popular as camembert, the pont-l’évêque.

Camembert, by the way, is a soft cheese with a bloomy rind. A soft cheese is a cheese which, during its manufacture, undergoes neither heating nor pressing. Its paste is therefore creamy, even runny. A bloomy rind cheese, on the other hand, is a cheese whose rind is covered with Penicillium camemberti, a microscopic fungus which gives said rind a fluffy white appearance.

Penicillium camemberti is obviously a close relative of Penicillium glaucum and Penicillium roqueforti, two species used for the production of cheeses such as roquefort and gorgonzola.

And yes, my reading friend, Wallace, the British inventor whose best friend is a beagle, Gromit, who earned a degree in canine engineering from the renowned Dogwart’s University, I kid you not, rather liked / likes gorgonzola. Personally, yours truly prefers brie. Anyway, let us move on.

Penicillium camemberti is obviously a close relative of Penicillium notatum, the species through which British biologist / pharmacologist / physician Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin, in September 1928.

And yes, my reading friend, pont-l’évêque is also a soft cheese with a bloomy rind, but back to our story.

At this point, yours truly would like to point out that the information used to construct said story contained contradictory elements.

Clément, his wife and their son emigrated to Canada around June 1910 and settled in Québec. Little interested in urban life, Clément senior seemed to farm in various places in the province: Québec; Percé, in Gaspésie; Saint-Henri-de-Lévis, not far from Québec; Lac-des-Écorces, in the Laurentians; and Duhamel, in the Outaouais.

Incidentally, the Clément couple may had produced cheese, cheddar perhaps, in Saint-Henri-de-Lévis, in collaboration with a certain Bélisle or Boivin.

The Clément couple may also have begun to produce camembert, a type of cheese that did not really exist in Québec and Canada at the time. The people to whom it offered a taste of said cheese were hardly impressed. The camembert being too different from the cheeses people were used to, its production soon came to an end.

A digression if I may. It was possible to find French camembert in Montréal, Québec, at that time. In 1910 and 1915, for example, a wholesale and retail grocer and wine merchant, Fraser, Viger & Company Limited of Montréal, sold that cheese 35 and 45 cents apiece, or about $8.75 and $10.50 in 2022 currency.

The Clément family may, I repeat may, have moved to Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Québec, no later than 1914. The following year, Clément senior became one of the countless Frenchmen who return home to serve in the army. He seemingly remained in Europe until the end of the First World War.

While her spouse was overseas, Rachel Clément found various jobs in private homes in Montréal. In 1918, she moved to Saint-Basile-le-Grand, where she worked as a housekeeper for David Leclerc, a local farmer. As the days went by, she told him about her dream of launching the production of camembert on Québec soil. Intrigued, Leclerc agreed to give her a hand. He had a herd of dairy cows and a large cellar which lent itself well to the production of cheese.

Once back in Saint-Basile-le-Grand, Clément senior wasted no time putting his shoulder to the wheel…. of cheese. Sorry.

It was from all these efforts that the famous Madame Clément camembert was born.

And no, producing a quality camembert on Québec soil may not have been easy. Rachel Clément indeed had to deal with a harsh climate, milk of sometimes variable quality, bacteria different from those of sweet France, etc.

In 1920, Clément junior, who had become a carpenter, left his job in Québec to join the staff of a carpentry shop in the small town of Peru, New York – the birthplace of Francis Ashbury Pratt, co-founder, around 1860, with Amos Whitney, of a firm known as Pratt & Whitney Company. Yes, yes, that Pratt & Whitney, the one which gave birth to Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company, a manufacturer of flying machine engines known among all and a firm mention ed in several issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee since August 2017. And no, there will be no more talk of aviation until the end of this article. Pinky swear.

Clément junior seemed to have done quite well in his new hometown. In fact, he met his future spouse there, Marie Charette. The couple married in June 1925, in Peru. It would have 10 children between 1926 and 1946.

In 1923, however, his parents, overwhelmed by the success of their cheeses, a success still very local or regional one had to admit, asked Clément junior to return to the fold. The young man acquiesced. He then embarked on a long career as a dairyman and cheesemaker.

Leclerc meanwhile continued to lend a hand. He seemed to be involved in the sale of camembert in Montréal, including at the Bonsecours market, a well-known public market.

In 1924, Clément senior bought the Leclerc farm. Two years later, he sold it to Canadian Explosives Limited (CXL) and moved to McMasterville, Québec, where he continued to help his spouse to produce cheese with the help of their son.

Clément senior bought milk from farmers in the region of Beloeil, Québec, a municipality adjacent to McMasterville. He bottled some of it and resold it to private individuals in Beloeil and McMasterville.

Do you have a question, my reading friend? Let me guess. Why the he** did CXL acquire a farm on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, not far from Montréal? A good question.

You see, CXL operated a major powder mill in McMasterville. Indeed, that factory, inaugurated around 1878-79 by Hamilton Powder Company of Hamilton, Ontario, one of the firms which gave birth to CXL in 1910, produced impressive quantities of explosives for the British Army and the United States Army during the First World War.

The small Clément cheese dairy hardly grew during the 1920s and 1930s. Its camembert seemed far too exotic for the vast majority of Quebecers. As for those who appreciated that type of product, the fact was that they preferred to consume French camembert. Indeed, the family had to throw away more than more than half of its production at least once at that time.

The outbreak of the Second World War, in September 1939, and, even more, the collapse of France, in June 1940, changed the deal. The importation of any cheese from Europe (France, Netherlands, Switzerland, etc.) having become impossible, Québec and Canadian consumers had to turn to local or American products which, at that time, did not necessarily shine by their variety.

Madame Clément camembert could be found in grocery stores and boutiques in Montréal. It may, I repeat may, otherwise have been on sale in the Montréal branch of the largest department store chain in Canada. The name of that chain mentioned several times in our blog / bulletin / thingee since January 2019? T. Eaton Company Limited, of course. Camembert from the Clément cheese dairy, located in McMasterville or Beloeil, I cannot say, was also sold in Montréal branches of a well-known Canadian chain of grocery stores, Dominion Stores Limited of Toronto, Ontario.

Would you believe that some Montrealers used their cars to visit the Clément family and buy their cheese?

Incidentally, Kraft Cheese Limited then distributed Clément family cheeses. That Canadian subsidiary of the American cheese giant, Kraft-Phenix Cheese Corporation, itself a subsidiary of the American dairy giant National Dairy Products Corporation, actually distributed Clément family cheeses until around 1965.

One only needs to think about the Madame Clément camembert, available in Alberta, in Calgary and Edmonton, by 1944 at the latest.

If the return of peace led to a drop in sales, a drop linked to the return of European cheeses, the Clément cheese dairy could nevertheless count on a larger clientele than that of the 1930s. That clientele included some important personalities, including Gaspard Fauteux, lieutenant governor of Québec between October 1950 and February 1958.

Clément senior died in February 1952, I think, at the age of 77. Clément junior may, I repeat may, have taken the reins of the firm at that time. It was also around that time that the family firm may have become Laiterie R.A. Clément (Enregistrée? Incorporée? Limitée?). This being said (typed?), Rachel Clément continued to be involved until around 1963. She left this world in July 1966, at the age of 83.

As was said (typed?) above, Laiterie R.A. Clément changed its cheese distributor in 1965. It then chose Froche Limitée of Montréal.

Laiterie Mont-Saint-Hilaire Limitée of… Mont-Saint-Hilaire, Québec, acquired the dairy from the Clément family in 1972. Froche acquired the cheese dairy around 1975-76. Indeed, Fromagerie Clément Incorporée was born in October 1975.

Clément junior died in April 1985, at the age of 83.

Frenchman Claude Bonnet and his two sons, Michel and Philippe Bonnet, took over Clément junior’s old cheese factory around 1984. Fromagerie Clément Incorporée may have seen the light at that time.

That initiative was not the first launched on Canadian soil by the Bonnet family, however. Nay. Towards the end of the 1970s, Bonnet senior had bought a farm in Manitoba and there he settled his son Philippe, who had a degree in agronomy. That establishment turned out to be more complicated than expected, however. Worse still, violent rainstorms, accompanied by hail, hit the south of the province in June 1984. These storms caused flooding and damaged crops. The Bonnet family sold their Manitoba farm soon after.

Bonnet and his son Michel emigrated to Canada around 1984-85. The family’s initial goal was seemingly to start cheese production in Manitoba. The Bonnets, however, eventually decided to settle in Québec, which explained the founding of the aforementioned Fromagerie Clément.

The Bonnets, however, moved to Saint-Damase, Québec, no later than 1985, in a more modern building. Their firm soon changed its name to become the Groupe Damafro. Descendants of Clément junior may have been involved in that artisanal cheese dairy. Among the many cheeses produced by Damafro was a Madame Clément camembert.

Attracted in 2006 at the latest by the huge American market and, between us, who would not be, Damafro realised that Québec milk was so expensive that its cheeses had no chance of unlocking the American market. In fact, many Québec consumers considered certain local cheeses too expensive. As effective as it was for Québec milk producers, the supply management system had been a problem for cheese producers for many years.

Worse still, Canadian dairy products were not among the products that could circulate without tariff barriers between Canada and the United States, courtesy of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which came into force in January 1994.

Faced with that situation, Damafro considered joining forces with a Mexican cheese producer, or even buying one. Indeed, Mexican dairy products were among the products that could circulate without tariff barriers between Mexico and the United States, courtesy of NAFTA. Better yet, milk and labour cost a lot less in Mexico than in Québec.

The administrative structure of the Mexican government being even heavier than that of the Québec government, which was saying something, Damafro finally formed an alliance with Interdeli Sociedad anónima promotora de inversión de capital variable, a Mexican firm specialising in the production of Lebanese dishes. The two parties signed an agreement in 2007.

The agricultural cooperative Agropur of Saint-Hubert, Québec, acquired Damafro in November 2013. Over the months, the number of people employed in Saint-Damase decreased. A partial closure occurred in 2018. Agropur announced a little later that the plant would close in July 2019 but changed its mind for one reason or another. The Saint-Damase plant, more or less active for months, finally closed its doors around March 2020, to the chagrin of the locals.

Interdeli, for its part, still existed as of 2022. That firm now specialised in dairy products.

This writer wishes to thank all the people who provided information. Any mistake contained in this article is my fault, not theirs.

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Rénald Fortier